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Research in Education: Improving Provision for Pupils with Special Education Needs and Disabilities

In this article, we would like to highlight some recent research and their findings in the area of education. Firstly, we look at the Ask, Listen, Act study which looked into the impact of COVID-19 on children with SEND. Secondly, we explore the government's findings on the educational experiences of children with SEND in England in 2022. Finally we look briefly at the new ICARS report on restraint and seclusion in England schools.

1) The Ask, Listen, Act Study

In 2021, the Ask, Listen, Act Study released its findings into the long-term impact of COVID-19 and the accompanying lockdowns on children and young people (CYP) with Special Education Needs and Disabilities (SEND). This study sought to identify and mitigate the impact of the pandemic on CYP with SEND, and inform the provision of support moving forward. This study consisted of participants ranging from children to parents/carers, education staff, health and social care staff, and local authority staff. Data was collected through surveys, one on one interviews, and creative workshops. Their findings show that, for CYPs with SEND, education was negatively impacted by the pandemic, as most were unable to attend school and online learning was not tailored to their specific needs, and therefore more difficult to navigate. Results also indicate that the government lockdowns had a negative impact on CYPs social skills and communication, and left them feeling ‘lonely and bored.’ Moreover, their physical and emotional well-being also suffered, as health and social care services were either paused or moved online, meaning individuals were therefore unable to access the support they required. Changes in routine, including no longer attending school, caused difficulties for many children and their families, and resulted in highly stressful environments and struggles with emotional well-being.

This extended to family members and parents/carers, who found themselves exhausted with no respite care available, meaning that their own health and well-being suffered. However, it was noted that some children who had previously struggled to attend school flourished in their home learning environment, and those few children who did have access to school settings in smaller classrooms found these more tailored to their individual needs and less challenging. Education staff included in the report also stated that they found thechanging rules and guidance challenging, and that they were frustrated by being unable to provide the support and level of care they wished to.

The report identified 5 key areas which are paramount to the health and well-being of CYPs with SEND, and which should be built upon moving forward:

  1. Right to play, socialise, have fun and be part of the community

  2. Right to support for social, emotional and mental health

  3. Right to flexibility, choice and support in order to feel safe, included, and supported to learn in school

  4. Right to health and social care services and therapies in order to stay healthy

  5. Right to support for parents/carers and family

The report identified many areas where there are implications for practice, and priorities for recovery and renewal following the Covid-19 pandemic in terms of policies and practice. These included a number of areas within schools and educational environments where practice leaders, teachers, and other educational professionals can enforce change. The report indicates that it should be a requirement for mainstream and specialist schools to deliver mental health prevention and promotion skills for all CYPs with SEND, for example teaching healthy coping strategies and mental health literacy. The report also recommends SEND-specific training for all teaching staff in order to tailor learning to the requirements of the individual, and embed inclusive teaching practices into all classrooms, such as active listening, visual aids, and auditory memory techniques. There should also be training and resources available to allow for a flexible curriculum and delivery that supports children with SEND. In addition, the report suggests that wider skills for children with SEND should be taught and encouraged within schools, such as general life skills, transitioning to adulthood, and work experience. Finally, the report identifies co-production (Morewood, Humphrey, & Symes, 2011) as a key tool for ensuring the needs of SEND pupils are met through daily communication with families in order to accurately anticipate and meet the needs of CYPs with SEND.

The full list of priorities can be found here, and the full report and its findings here.

2) Educational experiences of young people with SEND report from the Office for National Statistics (2022)

Last year, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in the UK released the results of study looking into the educational experiences of young people with SEND in England from February – May 2022. In this study, young people in educational settings from ages 11 – 16 and their parents/carers and school staff were asked about their personal experiences with educational systems across England. In particular, this study sought to gain a personal insight into what is working well for the people accessing education, and where there are areas for improvement. This qualitative study produced some interesting results, and is an excellent effort to bridge the gap between theory and practice, magnifying the voices of young people and their supporters to work out where the system meets, and fails to meet, their needs. Gareth D. Morewood, Educational Adviser for Studio 3 and our lead trainer in the LASER programme, was part of a steering group for this research, the full report of which can be found here (a young person friendly summary of the report is also available here).

The undertaking of this research had a focus on representing the views of young people themselves following the Inclusive Data Taskforce (IDTF) identifying gaps in similar research in 2021 in terms of how much data in this field represents the voices of young people. The importance of lived experience in informing systems cannot be overstated, and this report’s detailed interviews and focus groups have certainly attempted to bridge that gap. Parents, carers, and educational staff were also interviewed in this study, with participants from a range of educational settings including mainstream, special and residential schools, alternative provision, and elective home education, providing a well-rounded and inclusive view of educational systems in England.

The results of this study show a number of areas where SEND pupils feel provision is working for them, as well as highlighted a number of key areas where more needs to be done to meet the individual needs of every pupil struggling in educational environments. Below, we have highlighted a few key points that we find to be particularly prudent, but we do encourage you to read the full report for the full findings.

Firstly, when it came to SEND awareness in schools, the study found that many pupils were not only very aware of the additional needs and supports they required in educational environments, but that many had also developed strategies of their own to support them in school. Pupils cited ear defenders for sensitivity to noise, fidgeting and doodling to improve concentration, and other strategies to minimise distress and cope with challenging aspects of the learning environment. Unfortunately, pupils described how some of these self-soothing techniques were often viewed as ‘distracting’ or ‘disruptive’ by teachers:

‘If you know that you have to fidget with things to concentrate, tell the teacher that you have to do this certain thing. Because if you want me to do well in your class, I'm not going to do well if I'm just sat there staring at the board.’

This highlights a need for teachers to understand and make space for emotional regulation strategies, and more so for that understanding to be built in to teachers’ training and development around supporting SEND pupils. As Elly Chapple would say, it is essential that we ‘flip the narrative’ on how we view behaviour, particularly when certain behaviours are necessary coping strategies and not, as is often assumed, ‘bad’ behaviour. Another key theme this study identified was that many SEND pupils and their supporters felt that they were constantly battling against the ‘naughty child’ narrative in schools. Many pupils described experiences of their behaviour being inaccurately perceived by teachers, demonstrating an overall lack of SEND education for teachers:

‘Teachers were like 'Yeah, I explained that once I'm not explaining that again, because you weren't listening.' But they don't really realise that you've got to have it repeated for you to maybe understand a little bit more.’

The negative consequences on a pupil caused by not having their needs understood or met can be manifold, and difficult to reverse. Labeling children as ‘bad’ or ‘naughty’ because they require additional support only punishes those pupils for being different, something they are keenly aware of as is. As much as many of the young people in this study just wanted to be seen as ‘normal kids,’ these fears are bound up in how their differences negatively set them apart from their classmates. Viewing difference positively and not as a justification for mistreatment, lower expectations and fewer opportunities is the key to better supporting SEND pupils, and allowing them to flourish in mainstream settings. This requires promoting inclusion on a whole-school level, with open discussion and education around SEND to raise awareness amongst staff and pupils, and build acceptance of individual differences as part of an inclusive school culture.

'All students in school, even though they hide stuff that you can't really see, they are going through a lot. So, try to be aware, have awareness of them.' - Zeiky Boy, aged 14-16 years. EHCP, mainstream school. Office for National Statistics

On the other hand, good things schools did to help SEND pupils manage their emotions and discomfort included teachers who listened and understood their self-regulation strategies, staff who made children feel comfortable sharing their feelings and asking for help, and access to sensory rooms/safe environments. It should be noted however that ‘safe spaces’ can only operate as so when pupils have open access to these spaces as they require, not when they are forced into them to ‘calm down’ during a crisis. Pupils and supporters also identified the need for facilities and environmental factors to support SEND children, including accessibility features such as lifts and ramps, but also comfortable chairs and controlled temperatures, which can make a huge difference to the sensory experience of all learners and teachers.

Young people and their supporters also highlighted the need for flexibility within SEND provision, as each young person has different needs and interests.

‘A recurrent theme from young participants, parents, carers and staff was that a "one-size-fits-all" approach to support does not work when young peoples' needs and preferences are so varied.’

Most notably, pupils identified that lessons in their preferred learning styles (audio, visual, tactile, practical) helped them to retain information better than those that involved lots of reading and writing. Pupils also found that smaller classes were better as they were able to get more support and help from teachers without feeling rushed. However, due to under-staffing, lack of funding and lack of access to resources that lots of schools face, it is understandable that these needs cannot always be met. There were however small, day-to-day changes identified by pupils that if implemented could address the need for flexible support for SEND pupils. For example, it was suggested that, if necessary, pupils should be allowed to modify their uniforms if they find them restrictive and uncomfortable. Again, ‘one-size-fits-all’ cannot work where neurodiversity is concerned, so giving pupils the freedom to bend rules that are, after all, often negligible is essential. And remember, if something is uncomfortable and dysregulatory for SEND pupils, the chances are that other pupils will be struggling with it too.

The parents and carers of SEND pupils who participated in this study also highlighted a number of issues around SEND provision in mainstream and specialist schools. Parents and carers identified that access to additional support was in many cases denied until pupils had formal diagnoses. The complexity and lengthiness of the process of obtaining a diagnosis makes accessing the necessary support almost impossible, and even when children do have a diagnosis to back up their plea for support, this is not always ensured. Overall, there is a call to personalise these processes and tailor support to each individual, as well as to reduce the inflexibility around SEND provision and the need to formally prove that one’s child is eligible for the help they require in class. Additional support individualised to the child’s needs should be the norm for every pupil who is struggling in school, neurodiverse or not, as kind, compassionate and tailored support can only help those struggling in education. Parents and carers also identified an over-focus on academic achievements, with some children being denied additional supports on account of them performing adequately in educational outcomes. The need for additional support can encompass many areas, and a child who is getting by well in class may miss out on fundamental support that could help them flourish at school.

Pupils also identified the importance of being accepted and integrated into the social world of the school as a key factor in the extent to which they felt a sense of belonging and inclusion. Pupils who did not have friends at school described feeling isolated at break times and generally like an ‘outsider.’ Whilst buddy systems were useful for some, others found them awkward and uncomfortable, and there was a general consensus that these schemes must be voluntary and that pupils should have a choice over who they buddy up with in order to avoid some of this awkwardness. Pupils felt positively about groups to encourage friendship building, such as summer schools and afterschool/lunch clubs. Again, pupils felt that awareness and acceptance of neurodiversity was a fundamental factor in whether these groups were successful or not. In general, championing awareness and accessibility would enable SEND pupils to get more out of these groups, as well as enable them to attend school events and trips which lack of awareness and accommodation for their needs can sometimes prevent them from attending. Negative interactions with other pupils were identified as one of the main reasons that could cause a SEND pupil to feel negativity towards school. The study found that bullying, meanness, gossiping, exclusion and judgement had a profound effect on learning and well-being. Pupils suggested raising awareness about the impact of bullying, and that staff use interventions such as mediation and discussions between pupils to prevent continued bullying. Many pupils felt bullying was often ignored by staff, or that their responses were ineffective in preventing its continuation.

Overall, this study shares the views of pupils, parents and carers who have experience of how SEND provision in schools can make or break a child’s educational experience. Whilst there are immense pressures on mainstream and specialist schools in terms of staffing and funding, there are simple changes that can be made to make educational settings a more welcoming and inclusive environment for all. Pupils stated that simple friendliness and greetings every morning from staff were a key component in making them feel welcome, accepted and cared for. This study highlights the urgent need for SEND education across schools and other educational settings in England, with many schools still ill-equipped to meet the needs of neurodiverse pupils. At Studio 3, we believe that a Low Arousal culture can only benefit everyone within it, but this is especially true for our SEND children who are sensitive to the chaos of daily life in a school. Raising awareness amongst every person in a school culture about neurodiversity will help SEND pupils feel more comfortable and confident asking for the help that they require, and ultimately allow for greater access to support from teachers and fellow pupils alike.

Again, we would encourage you to read the full report and all its findings on the ONS website here.

3) The ICARS Report: Restraint and Seclusion in England's Schools

A recent study from the International Coalition Against Restraint and Seclusion shows data from 560 families across England who have shared their experiences of restraint and seclusion in schools in England. The full report, available here, is a sobering read.

Written by

Rachel McDermott

Studio 3 Social Media and Information Coordinator


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